Friday, 19 July 2013

Sunday in the Park with George, July 20, 2013 ***

By Stephen Sondheim, Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until July 27
(7.30pm July 20, 23, 24, 25, 26, & 27; 1.00pm Matinees on July 24 & 27)
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***
 Review also published in Herald Sun on Sunday July 21, 2013 online and in print. KH 

 Alexander Lewis as George and Christina O’Neill as Dot; pic by Jeff Busby

Watching Sunday In The Park With George is like peeking inside the artist George Seurat’s mind to discover how his painting is created.

Seurat’s impressionist-pointilist masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, provides the design, characters and style for this unusual and challenging musical created by genius composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim with librettist James Lapine.

This Victorian Opera production, directed by Stuart Maunder and conducted by Phoebe Briggs, captures the beauty and musical eccentricity of Sondheim’s music and lyrics, but the scenes, characters and dialogue do not always balance or meet the quality of the music and singing.

Lewis’s voice is often thrilling, O’Neill is charming, and the chorus is exhilarating in Sunday, The Day Off, Putting It Together, and the witty It’s Hot Up Here.

But the performers’ opera and musical theatre vocal and acting styles are out of balance, there are flat patches between songs, the acting is uneven and performers are moved awkwardly around the stage.

Act One, set in 1884, focuses on the struggling painter, George (Alexander Lewis), as he prepares his major work, painting studies of his lover, Dot (Christina O’Neill), and other characters on La Grande Jatte.

It is set against a luscious, colourful design (Anna Cordingley) that cunningly incorporates La Grande Jatte and other Seurat paintings, and vivid costumes styled after the characters in the painting.

In Act Two in 1984, we witness George’s great-grandson (Lewis), an artist who exhibits obtuse light sculptures and wrangles the modern art scene.

Sondheim’s music draws on Seurat’s style by incorporating staccato, contained but playful rhythms that echo pointilism, rapid, witty lyrics with complex, skipping internal rhymes, and 11 instruments to reflect the 11 colours used by Seurat.

Sondheim masterfully develops story, characters and relationships by intercutting dialogue into songs.

Lewis and O’Neill’s voices blend harmoniously in their duets including Sunday In The Park With George, during which George paints while Dot complains about posing, the heat and George’s neglect.

In Colour and Light, Lewis and O’Neill capture Sondheim’s counterpointing of George’s obsession – colour and light – that blinds him to Dot’s feelings, while in Move On, Dot finally challenges and leaves George.

Lewis has a fine voice and good stage presence but lacks the charisma to make this role great, while O’Neil is pert as Dot and mischievous as her granddaughter, Marie.

It is difficult not to compare anyone in these roles with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the 1986 premiere.

Sondheim may not be everyone’s idea of musical theatre but his genius is in his originality, just like Seurat and his contemporaries.

By Kate Herbert

  Ensemble in the Sunday on La Grande Jatte tableau; pic by Jeff Busby
Alexander Lewis as George and Christina O’Neill as Dot; pic by Jeff Busby

Conductor Phoebe Briggs
Director Stuart Maunder
Set & Costume Designer Anna Cordingley

Alexander Lewis, Christina O’Neill, Nancye Hayes, David Rogers-Smith, Antoinette Halloran, Dimity Shepherd, Carrie Barr, Kirilie Blythman, Lyall Brooks, John Brunato, Olivia Cranwell, Jeremy Kleema , Nathan Lay, Matthew MacFarlane, Noni McCallum, Daniel Todd

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